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Review of Dennis Gildea's "Hoop Crazy: The Lives of Clair Bee and Chip Hilton"

Hoop Crazy:  The Lives of Clair Bee and Chip Hilton

By Dennis Gildea

University of Arkansas Press, 2013.

I first encountered Chip Hilton books in 1957, when I was 10 years old and confined to half of the back seat in the family DeSoto (my younger sister vigilantly patrolled the other half) while riding across the country on one of our long family vacations.  As we motored across Ohio, then Indiana, and headed west, my attention was focused on the indeterminately-located small town of Valley Falls, as Chip and his friends Soapy Smith, Speed Morris, and the rest strove to win the big high school baseball/basketball/football game for  gruff-but-lovable Coach Hank Rockwell.  I had no idea who had written those books, or that the author had been one of the most successful college basketball coaches in America. 

Coach Clair Bee’s teams at Long Island University won over 82% of their games (a winning percentage fractionally better than Adolph Rupp’s at Kentucky or John Wooden’s at UCLA), including 43 in a row between 1935 and 1937.  They won two National Invitation Tournament titles (1939 and 1941), at a time when the NIT was a far bigger deal than the NCAA tournament.  Bee was a respected strategist and an influential advocate for new rules (including the 3-second rule that kept big men from parking themselves in the lane) that paved the way for the modern game.  Yet, despite the fact that his name is attached to a Coach of the Year Award—and Chip Hilton’s is attached to an exemplary Player of the Year—Bee and his accomplishments as a coach and writer are little remembered today.  He left intercollegiate athletics after several of his players were implicated in the notorious point-shaving scandals of 1951 and LIU eliminated its basketball program; he continued to narrate Chip Hilton’s athletic exploits, following him through his career at State University, until 1966.  But then he and Chip fell off the radar, obliterated by the massive cultural shift that was the 1960s.

Dennis Gildea, a professor of communications at Springfield College and a former sportswriter, has rescued the real coach and the fictitious player from their undeserved obscurity.  His book, a kind of dual biography, will prove valuable to sports historians and students of popular culture and juvenile fiction.  Thoroughly researched, clearly and energetically written, Hoop Crazy gives a full portrait of the man, assesses his career as a coach, places his fiction firmly in the tradition of youth sports fiction that goes back to the Frank Merriwell stories, and makes a case for the argument that the Chip Hilton stories written after the scandal are a sincere apologia for Bee’s own role in making college sports the dubious enterprise that they were already becoming.

Bee was a bit mysterious about his personal life.  He fudged his birth date (claiming to have been born in 1900, when it was really 1896); his upbringing in Grafton, West Virginia, was undeniably hardscrabble but his exact family circumstances remain cloudy; and it still isn’t entirely clear whether he was married three times or four.  But even as a student at Waynesburg College, which he entered at 26, his extraordinary energy and capacity for work drew attention.  He was a journalist as much as an athlete, and he was on his way.  As Gildea notes, Bee “would flee from formal schooling as a teenager, [but] as an adult [would] earn multiple graduate degrees and thrive as a teacher.”

In the first third of the 20th century, coaches such as Knute Rockne at Notre Dame and Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago used athletics to help make a name for their universities.  Bee, a great admirer of Rockne, was part of the next generation of coaches who followed their lead.  At Rider College and then, from 1931 to 1951, at LIU, he built programs from the ground up.  His first teams at LIU played their games in a sixth-floor gym at the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy.  For a while he coached football and basketball and taught courses in accounting, before being able to focus entirely on basketball. He was, he admitted, a no-holds-barred competitor, bringing in “ringers” from the eastern Pennsylvania coal country for his early football teams, signing 10 scholarship players a year, and essentially doing everything he could to gain an advantage.  For a long time, he enjoyed great success.  Then the point-shaving scandal of 1951 brought it all crashing down.

It was a national scandal:  Adolph Rupp had bragged that gamblers couldn’t touch his Kentucky team with a ten-foot pole, yet soon enough they were implicated.  CCNY’s squad, the only team ever to win both the NIT and the NCAA tournaments in the same year, was the focal point of the scandal.  But LIU contributed Eddie Gard, a player and important intermediary between the gamblers and the other players, and Sherman White, the best player in New York City, who threw away certain stardom in the NBA by getting caught up in the shenanigans. 

Like others before him, Gildea tries to pinpoint just how much Bee had known or suspected about how his team was being corrupted and when it all became clear to him, but doesn’t come to a definitive conclusion.  He must have suspected something.  But, in any event, when the LIU trustees voted to end the basketball program, Bee’s college career was essentially over.  He continued to “consult,” and had a short, unhappy stint with the NBA’s pathetic Baltimore Bullets.  But for the rest of his professional life he focused on writing about Chip Hilton:  two-thirds of the 23 books in the series were written after Bee left LIU.

In February of 1952, shortly after the judge presiding over the gambling trials denounced him by name for undermining amateurism in college sports, Bee wrote a passionate semi-rebuttal in the Saturday Evening Post.  To a certain extent, he defended himself, saying that the judge was “20 years behind the times.  I always thought that an athlete should be given free tuition, books and whatever went with it.”  But Bee also admitted his own shortcomings:  “I was a ‘win-‘em-all’ coach who, by resorting to established practices, helped to create the emotional climate that led to the worst scandal in the history of sports.”  In his subsequent writings, he implicitly urged rejection of commercialism and a return to simpler amateur standards.

Most sports historians, including Murray Sperber and Albert Figone, describe Bee’s new stance as unalloyed hypocrisy.  Gildea argues otherwise.  Agreeing with Bee’s own comment that “the loudest psalm singer is a reformed sinner,” he insists that Bee’s conversion was genuine.  He may be right:  it’s hard to imagine anyone putting so much effort into something he didn’t believe.  And although my ten-year-old self didn’t really notice, the post-1951 Chip Hilton books (the last published in 1966) brought in more real-world issues, from racial prejudice to corruption-by-outsiders.  Gildea pays particular attention to Dugout Jinx (1952), in which a professional scout tries to get Chip to sign a contract while still in college by promising to keep it secret, and Freshman Quarterback (1952), dealing with overactive football boosters.  Of course, Chip comes through in the clutch, on the field and off.  He doesn’t even accept a legitimate scholarship.  In that regard, he was indeed a latter-day Frank Merriwell, a model for the postwar university scene.

Gildea doesn’t spend as much time as he might on that scene, or on the ways in which the Chip Hilton books reflected it.  Merriwell, whose decades-long popularity began in the 1890s, had been depicted as a member of the elite.  Born into wealth, he had attended a private school, where, in addition to team sports he honed his boxing and fencing skills, then went off to Yale.  The tales about him were supposed to provide glimpses into the elite, exclusive world of higher education (only four percent of high school graduates went to college in 1900) and didactic lessons about character and sportsmanship.

Chip Hilton comes from a very different world:  in the generically-named small town of Valley Falls, he stars in the basic public high school sports of football, basketball, and baseball (and still finds time to work in the local drug store to help support his widowed mother).  He enters a different collegiate world, too.  After World War II, thanks to economic prosperity and the GI Bill, higher education became a mass enterprise.  By 1960, 40 percent of high school graduates were going on to college.  And the main beneficiaries were public institutions—like Chip’s State University—where enrollments far outstripped those at private institutions, and intercollegiate athletics became big business.  In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Bee was maintaining his empire and then seeing it collapse, the NCAA tried to enforce its “Sanity Code,” to limit benefits and eliminate under-the-table payments to athletes.  It failed miserably.  By the mid-1950s athletic scholarships were again officially permitted,  and we were on our way to the even more exploitive, commercialized, and—yes—hypocritical world of intercollegiate athletics we have today.

Chip Hilton turns down an athletic scholarship, avoids the gamblers, fights racial prejudice, and does all the things that a modern Merriwell should.  And, like Merriwell, he was enormously popular (millions of Chip Hilton books were sold), although for a much shorter time.  That he was created by a man who knew the ever-growing dark side of intercollegiate athletics so well may be paradoxical, but it is an intriguing paradox, one that Dennis Gildea has done more than anyone to illuminate.